Recently, I’ve been told that the answer to any beekeeping question should begin with, “It depends.” This always makes me grin because the very first blog post I ever wrote—nearly eleven years ago—is titled, “Well, it depends.” Other beekeepers said it before me, of course, but I’ve repeated that advice thousands of times in the intervening years. The fact that people are now offering it back to me is reassuring. It’s nice to know it’s come full circle, that people are listening.
My third post, which followed nine days later in 2010, is very similar. Its title, “All beekeeping challenges are local” came from a vegetable gardener who believed that all gardening challenges were local. He stressed that growing vegetables in Austin was not the same as growing vegetables anywhere else and, to be successful, you must adjust your practice to meet conditions.
It’s the environment, not the bees
In truth, if you raise Apis mellifera in Rio de Janeiro, Quebec, Cheltenham, or Brisbane, the bees are not very different. Their biology is basically the same, their temperaments, habits, and yearly cycles are similar. But environmental conditions can be strikingly divergent from place to place.
You may think, “Of course conditions vary in different countries. That’s obvious.” But it’s important to remember that conditions in your backyard differ from those across town or down the street. Your backyard may be shady and damp, while your neighbor’s may be sunny and dry. Yours may be still, his may be windy. Yours may be shielded from pesticides while his is downwind of an apple orchard laden with chemicals. You can never overestimate the potential differences.
These variations explain why we have countless beekeeping techniques and a wide range of outcomes. If you manage your bees exactly as your neighbor does, you will most likely have different results. Experienced beekeepers know this, but it catches newbies unaware. If you believe all the answers are in a book or short course on beekeeping, you will be disappointed because no single way is the right way. It all depends on the individual colony and where it is.
Colonies are individuals
No two colonies are exactly alike. They have quirky genetics, one-of-a-kind homes, and variable food resources. Distinct dangers lurk in each neighborhood and beekeepers have various levels of experience with contrasting objectives and motivations. Put it all together and you can see why what works for Joe doesn’t work for James.
Furthermore, beekeepers react emotionally to their colonies. We might say, “I have a strong colony and a weak one. Why is one weak?” We never ask, “Why is one strong?” We assume that the stronger one is normal and the weaker one is deficient.
If they were children instead of colonies, would we see it the same way? Or would we assume the weaker one was normal and the stronger one had a gift? Why can we accept differences among children or puppies or racehorses but not among colonies? It doesn’t make sense.
My revised advice
I’ve written in an array of publications since my first post, and I’ve met thousands of beekeepers with stories of success and tales of failure. But of all the things I’ve suggested over the years, nothing feels “righter” than those two bits of wisdom.
Although I still think “It depends” and “All the challenges are local” are rock-solid ideas, I would like to add a third: “Every colony is an individual.” Each colony has unique characteristics that affect its ability to survive in an increasingly dangerous world, a world chockfull of the unexpected.
- It depends
- All the challenges are local
- Every colony is an individual
All three ideas are closely related variations on a theme. But keeping them in mind can make us better beekeepers by teaching us to value the differences and use them to our advantage. Beekeeping would be boring indeed if every colony was a clone of the one beside it.
To become a better beekeeper, learn to recognize and celebrate the subtle differences among colonies, beekeepers, and environments. The rest will fall into place.
Honey Bee Suite